El-Rufai: Religion, Ethnicity Among the Biggest Challenges Kaduna State Faces

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The Kaduna State governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, has been in the news lately for some controversial reasons; from disagreements with elements within his All Progressives Congress to the bill he proposed seeking a law to regulate religious activities in his state. In this interview with some journalists in Kaduna, the first since he became governor, El-Rufai expatiates on the issues. John Shiklam, who was at the session, presents the excerpts.

On his experience so far as governor of a complex state like Kaduna.
I think it has been an interesting journey; I want to say that we are grateful to the Almighty God for His intervention in the state, which led to our election. We got elected because the majority of the people in the state wanted something to change. Many of them were not sure what should change, but clearly, the way the state was going was not something that was acceptable to most people and that was why they all came out to vote for us on that day and we are very grateful.

It has been tough for many reasons. I recently visited a friend of mine who contested the governorship and told his wife that she should be thanking God he lost because this is the toughest time in Nigeria’s history to be a state governor, particularly, a state that has been ruled by the PDP for 16 years.

Taking over from a system that has institutionalised itself for 16 years and trying to change direction is always tough. In addition, we are taking over at a time prices of crude oil have collapsed by 70 per cent. We inherited a machinery of government but, more importantly, an attitude in the public service within the larger political community of a country that was selling crude oil at $100 per barrel.

On the challenge of religion and ethnicity.
So expectations are very high but the revenues are very low. The other reason, of course, is that I never appreciated that running a state was very different from being a federal minister. I always thought that I had run the FCT, a sort of state, and things were not going to be different. I have found to my surprise that things are quite different and one of the challenges that we are facing is that everything in this state tends to be politicised or ethicised, or religionised, if there are any such words.

Very simple problems that can be discussed and resolved by logic and facts become converted into issues of ethnicity or religion, and so on. So these are some of the challenges we have had to face, but we are doing the best we can. As far as governance is concerned, we have addressed frontally, what we felt were the issues.

On cost-saving measures.
The first month we got here in June 2015, we got about N5 billion from the Federation Account. In the last two months, we got N2.8 billion. So even from the time we came to now, there has been a massive change, but we have taken steps. We knew that oil prices were sliding and we had to do something that’s why from day one, the deputy governor and I said we will give up 50 per cent of our salaries as contribution because we are going to ask public servants to make a similar sacrifice. We also reduced the size of government.

We reduced the number of commissioners from 24 to 13, all with an effort to cut cost. We inherited 38 permanent secretaries. We are now operating with 18. We are looking at ministries, departments and agencies that have similar functions or duplicate to merge them just to cut cost because if your revenues are collapsing, you have to cut cost.
We reduced the length of convoys. For instance, the convoy of the governor before me was 21 vehicles. We have five or six cars now. And they are all essential, whether security or whatever. I don’t go round with ambulance, I do not expect to drop dead anytime.

On revenue generation
We are raising revenues. I will give just one example. In December 2015, we collected N224 million as internally generated revenue. In January 2016, we started plugging leakages, we said no cash payments, we deployed POS to hospitals because some people go to the hospitals and they were told they had to go to the bank to pay. So we deployed point of sales, so you don’t pay cash in all our hospitals.

In January we raised N1.2 billion. In February, it got closer to N2 billion. It’s looking like this year, we are going to be raising something between the region of N3 billion and N4 billion a month by the time all the policies we are putting in place are settled. So we are reverting more into internally generated revenue than depending on the Federation Account and we hope to do more.

We have a new tax code, which enables us do all that, we centralised tax collection. We are doing that because we believe cutting cost is not enough, there is a limit to how much you can cut cost. After all, you cannot cut personnel cost. You can verify, you can remove ghost workers, you can reduce fraud in the pay roll, but salaries are a fix cost, you have to pay that every month. Unless a pensioner dies, the pensions keep increasing. So we have to ensure that we raise enough revenues to at least, cover our fixed cost and also leave some resources for development.

So that is what we have essentially been doing. It’s been tough. As you know, 27 states in Nigeria had to be bailed out by the Central Bank of Nigeria. We were not one of those, but we went and got similar financial support.

We inherited N14 billion in pension liabilities. We are just verifying pensioners to be sure that they all exist. But we have borrowed enough money from the CBN to pay all accrued gratuities and pay pension. It’s really been difficult, but we are lucky, we have a good team in Kaduna, hardworking team. We tried to bring the best people we know that can deliver and we are making progress in many areas in spite of the challenges.

On whether there is a timeframe for the workers’ verification exercise, which is still on-going in the state.
The reason why I don’t want to say it will end is practical. First of all, an employer should be able to once in a while check how many employees he has. It is normal, so it doesn’t mean that once we verify fully, we will not do it again, but not every other month, as we have been doing since we came. Our hope is that this last verification that we are doing will cover all the loopholes. The thing has been continuously shifting goal post and when you are about to score, the goal post moves. We are dealing with crooks and staunch criminals that don’t want to give up this revenue from ghost workers. So as we plug one area of abuse, they open another. We think now that we have moved, we have a new payment platform. We have a new financial management platform for the state – State Integrated Financial Management Information System (STIFMIS). It is a $2 million project that was financed by the World Bank and completed two years ago, but the system refused to allow it go on stream. We came and revived it in October and we paid our salaries in January using the system.

Earlier on, there was a consultant that was preparing the payroll. Now it is our own people doing it on this platform. With the verification we are now doing with Bank Verification Number (BVN), everyone must have an account in deposit money bank, I think we will be 99 per cent comfortable, unless if in the process, another new vista of abuse is opened, we do not expect to do any verification anytime.

May be once or twice a year, we will do it just to check our staffing. But we are comfortable with this one. I have apologised before, I apologise again to all those that have been victims of this verification because their names got omitted. You get paid, the next month; they remove your name from payroll. It doesn’t make sense for someone that was paid last month for his name to disappear the next month. But this is what the staff in the Accountant General’s Office are doing. They are doing it intentionally. It is all to cause confusion. But my hope is that with what we are doing, we have plugged all the loopholes and we will not need to do verification again.

On the controversy over the form designed by the state government, which requires workers to indicate their membership of trade unions.
Let me tell you where we started. When we came to Kaduna, I wasn’t paid for about three months. When I finally got an alert of three months’ salary, I asked for my pay slip because it is normal to have a pay slip that shows your basic salary, deduction for tax, loans and so on.

It took about three or four months before the Accountant General’s Office could give us pay slips because they were not giving. You will just get an alert and if the money you got from this month is different from last month, no explanation. We said no, give everyone a pay slip. That is when the trouble started. Muyiwa here (his Senior Special Adviser on Media) got his pay slip and there was a deduction of N2, 000 for union dues. N2, 000 does not sound much money, but we have 87,000 employees in the state and local governments. It is a hefty amount of money when you multiply it.

Now, is Muyiwa a trade union member? I don’t think so. One of our commissioners, Professor Nok, also got a deduction on his pay slip. He said when did I join union? This is how the conversation started. We called them to ask what was going on. They said it was automatic. So we asked the Attorney General to check the laws and give us an opinion. She came back and said it was compulsory for every employer to deduct union dues and remit to the union. She then went on to say the membership of a trade union is not automatic, it is voluntarily; you have to say I am a member of a trade union before deduction can be effected.

I know neither Muyiwa nor our commissioner said they were trade union members. Why was their money deducted? That is why we invited the unions and told them that we will not be automatically deducting for trade union dues until we know those that are members and those that are not members because our commissioners are not members and their money was deducted.

I believe that trade unions are important. I believe that they offer services to their members and if I am an employee, particularly lower level employee, I will join trade union so that if there is any problem, they will take it up as a group. Personally, I support it; however, the law is clear. You have to first indicate your membership before we can legally deduct and send it. We can’t just deduct because we assume. That was when our argument with the NLC and TUC started.

On the attitude of the unions.
I was traveling out of the country, the president of NLC met me at the airport to say, we are your friends, why are you doing this? I said, what am I doing? I told him, I am merely complying with the law. We want to give Kaduna State government employees the opportunity to just say deduct, I am a member of a trade union. Then we can deduct and those that are not interested can keep their N2, 000 or whatever it is that they are deducting. They didn’t like that because, of course, automatic means 100 per cent deduction of everybody. If we give people a chance, may be it will come down to 90 per cent and they can see a revenue loss.

But we must learn to respect laws in this country even if they appear to be against us. One day, it is that same law that will protect us. One of the problems we have in this country is selective obedience of the law. I believe that law is the foundation of every civilised society. If the law is not good, go and change it, there is the legislature. But if there is an existing law, just comply with it. This is my basic principle in life, which I have practised in every assignment I have been given.

But there is another dimension to this. One day, the chairman of Jaba local government called me. She said her bank account had been garnisheed, frozen by a court order, so the entire local government cannot function. She said National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE), took a loan from Guarantee Trust Bank and somehow got the Jaba local government council to guarantee the loan on the basis that the beneficiaries of the loan are employees of the local government.

They gave out the loans and refused to pay back, so the bank went to court. The local government didn’t even know. We had to call the bank to negotiate an interest waiver and settle the loan before the account was unfrozen. We called NULGE and we froze the remittance of their dues until we recover our money. I am giving you this example to show you the need to have boundaries.

How can a union borrow money guaranteed by the government? It is wrong. These are some of the things we are struggling with and, of course, the unions don’t like it. But we are trying to do the right thing. I have nothing against the unions; they are very supportive of us.

On the religious bill sent to the House of Assembly by his government, which has generated a lot of controversy.
Let me start with the history. Kaduna State, more than any state in Nigeria, if you take out the Yobe, Borno axis and Adamawa that suffered from Boko Haram insurgency, I think Kaduna State has suffered the most from death and destruction of property due to misuse and abuse of religion. More people have been killed in Kaduna from the words people have said than any other state. I think if you go back to history, many of you were not old enough, but I was, when Maitatsine happened. Maitatsine was a Cameroonian who came to Nigeria and started preaching. The Emir of Kano, the grandfather of the current emir, had him deported to Cameroon.

Afterwards, he managed to smuggle himself back to the country and continued preaching. He was preaching a version of Islam that was intolerant, that called all other Muslims pagan, etc. In spite of what he was preaching, he began to have followers and we all know what happened. People were killed, property destroyed, a military operation had to be mounted to flush them out.

So when you have these kinds of things happening in your country, I think as leaders, we have to examine ourselves and our society and find out what we can do to prevent that. In my opinion, it is the lack of regulation of religion that led to all these circles of deaths and destructions.

Just recently, we had the Shiite problem in Zaria, similar pattern. I believe that before you start preaching in any religion, you should have gone through a system of education, training and some kinds of certification because even doctors have to be certified, doctors are regulated – those who only deal with the physical life. What about those that deal with the spiritual?

On the initiation of the bill.
We initiated this bill from the Kaduna State Security Council based on strange sects emerging in the state. There is one around Makarfi called Gausiya. They do their Zhuhur prayers around 11am. They have different prayer times from other Muslims; this is how these things start. If you don’t resolve it quickly, they grow. Two cases: there is one woman in Makarfi who said that Prophet Mohammed, May Peace be upon him, had been speaking with her and people started coming with their problems, sick people, and her husband just sat down in one corner collecting N1,000 consultancy fee.

This is how it starts, It starts like a joke but we have to take steps to end that movement, because before you know it people will start coming from far and wide and the woman will become a problem. I think it was the report of two or three of these that compelled us in the security council to ask the question, isn’t there something to regulate preaching? Then we were told that there is a law since 1984. After the Maitatsine problem, the administrations in most states where the risk existed passed such an edict. It was a military government; Air Vice Marshal Usman Muazu was the governor of Kaduna.

It was subsequently amended several times to increase the fine or the imprisonment term because the original law had two years imprisonment. I think Col. Dangiwa Umar raised it to five years because this is a problem, we all know it.
Christian priests go to seminary, the ones I know. You spend years of training and you serve under a more experienced reverend, and so on, and learn what to say and what not to say.

Religious leaders don’t preach hatred. They preach peace, unity and tolerance in both religions. But today, we have got to a point that in my religion of Islam, anybody can wake up and start a sect, no control. In those days, from Islamiyya school, if you choose that line (to become a preacher), you have to study certain books. When you get to a certain level, they will say, go to “Gabas” (East), that is Borno. While there you spend some years in training.

You come to a mosque, you first start by calling prayers before you even become an Imam of a mosque; and before you become an Imam of a Friday mosque, the mallams in that community must agree that you are truly learned and competent. But now, somebody can build a mosque and call himself imam and put loud speakers and start disturbing people at night.

Catholics, Anglican, Baptist, Methodists, you go to seminary. By the time you become a Catholic bishop, you have an equivalent of a PhD. Beyond your religion, you must know about other religions, philosophy and so on. Those kinds of priests will not go and preach hatred or ask people to kill one another. No, they are trained men of God.

But in Christendom today, you all know, somebody will drink something the night before and say he is an apostle, God has spoken to him. You can’t prove God has not spoken to him and he begins to collect followers and when he starts preaching hatred, what can you do? Is that the society we want? This is the question!
The logic behind this law is to strengthen the 1984 law so that we regulate and ensure that those that are given the opportunity to preach at least know what they are doing, have a level of responsibility to develop society rather than divide it. This is our goal; we don’t have anything against anybody or any religion.

On the alleged contravention of religious rights.
Some people have argued that there is freedom of religion. Of course, section 38 (of the Nigerian constitution, as amended) is very clear; that we must not have a state religion, every Nigerian must be allowed to practice his faith or even have no faith at all.
In my speeches, I have made it very clear that I am the governor of Kaduna State, everybody that lives here, whether he is a Muslim, Christian or pagan, has a right over me as governor, to give him his rights, to protect him, to protect his religion and I will do that with every drop of my blood.

However, those that are quoting section 38 (of the constitution) conveniently forget section 45, which says that you can regulate any human right; you can restrain it if it will affect the rights of others.
You cannot say you are the only one with rights because the next man also has rights. You can practise your religion, but you cannot do so in a way that abuses the right of another. So there is nothing in this law that is not in conformity with the constitution.

There is nothing new about it rather than expanding the scope slightly and, in fact, after we sent it to the House of Assembly, I saw an article that showed us one thing that we didn’t include – blocking of highways. But that is because in the Penal Code we have a provision that we can get you. But it is good to put it there because every Friday mosques will block roads, why? We had to call them for a meeting and so that the police will be there to guide traffic.

In my opinion this is the law that we need, not only in Kaduna State, but in many states in Nigeria. I want to assure you, we just came back from the Economic Council meeting, a handful of governors asked me to send them our own law because they feel they also need it in their states, everybody is watching to see how we will handle our own.

On the allegation that the bill was inspired by the recent Shiite clashes in the state.
We sent the bill to the House of Assembly in October 2015. Some people are saying we sent it because of the Shiite problem, no.
Honestly, we do not have any ulterior motive other than to put a frame work that will ensure Kaduna State citizens live in peace, with every one practising his religion, but disallowing every Dick, Tom and Harry to come and say he can preach.
We do not regulate as such, we are forming two committees to issue the license. It is not the government that will issue the license. It is a committee of an umbrella Christian body and an umbrella Muslim body. We will just have an Inter-ministerial committee checking once in a while and be keeping records.

For us the reaction was just disproportionate and many of the people that are talking about the law have never even read it. If you read that law, it is very short, it has 16 sections. Read it; tell me what you don’t like. Don’t say you don’t like the entire law because we know we have a problem and I am the governor and I need a solution. So don’t say the solution is not to have the law, tell me what you don’t like, we can discuss it.

Tell me what is against your religion, we can discuss it. We want to find a solution that will bring peace; we are not fixed in our position. What we are fixed about is that Kaduna State people must live in peace. Everyone must be allowed to practise his religion without let or hindrance.

We are fixed about that, we can’t negotiate that because we swore we will do that. Other than that, everything can be discussed. Are you telling me it is ok for a person to put loudspeakers at midnight and start blaring Islamic or Christian preaching and stop people from sleeping? Which verse in the Bible or the Qur’an says Jesus did that or Mohammed did that? Are we not trying to copy them? Are they not the perfection of our various religions? Jesus says give unto God, God’s, and give unto Caesar Caesar’s. Government is Caesar.
Anyone who comes to preach, we check him and give him a permit. Those that live permanently in Kaduna, we give them license.

On the allegation that the bill is targeted against Christians.
The point is, we have enemies, we have political opponents, we have adversaries, we have people that were making money from the business of religion and we have ended it. We have said, tell us what is wrong with the bill. Even if I withdraw that bill today, the 1984 law is still there, I will still enforce it. So we don’t understand really what is going on.

The way some sections of the media had made it appear was as if the law was drafted against Christianity. For people like that, I have nothing to say except to leave the matter to God. God knows our heart, God knows what we want to achieve. That is all I have to say.

On the controversial school land recovery exercise embarked upon by the state government.
We want to recover school lands for obvious reasons. Our population is growing. We need more land for schools. Every year, Nigeria’s population increases by six million people and, already, the schools that we have are congested because the land earmarked for schools has been encroached upon by communities largely because of our carelessness because if you fence a school land, it is difficult to encroach on, but previous governments did not do that.

We started with Alhudahuda College, Zaria. Zaria is my home town. Those living in Alhudahuda College are mostly Fulanis and Hausas like me. That is where we started because Alhudahuda exhibited the most serious forms of abuse and impunity and we started from there. Now the school is clean, we are fencing it to prevent future encroachment. We moved to Rimi College and we found that most of the people in Rimi College, unlike Alhudahuda College, have titles. Alhudahuda College cost us nothing because they didn’t have title. The Nigerian Regional and Planning Act say you are only entitled to compensation if you have certificate of occupancy and development permit.
So if you have a structure without KASUPDA (Kaduna State Urban Planning Development Authority) approval, it can be taken down without compensation. You need both.

In Alhudahuda College, they didn’t have any because it was essentially some village heads or traditional rulers giving the places to people to build. Rimi College was more difficult because we found that they all had Certificate of Occupancy. So recovering the land in Rimi College cost us N380 million. We had to pay compensation because they all had titles and we had to give them alternative land. That is the law and we complied with the law even if the beneficiaries are PDP people.

Most of the buildings in Rimi College will be staff housing or hostels because we want to make the college a boarding school once again. I think it is a tragedy that one of our most important boarding schools, established in 1946, was converted to a day school. So we are restoring Rimi College to be proper boarding school and we will use some of those mansions as student’s hostel and housing. We will not demolish them. So nothing is lost. By September this year, we will admit students to boarding school in Rimi College. We want to restore it to the old St. John’s glory.

On the issue of Kaduna Polytechnic.
There are other places that have not caught your attention but work is going on. The one that I am sure you will ask even if I don’t comment on is Kaduna Polytechnic and Gbagi Villa. That was not in our programme because Kaduna Polytechnic is not one of our schools.

We didn’t even know there was a problem there. The rector of Kaduna Polytechnic paid us a courtesy visit and complained that land earmarked for the polytechnic had been encroached upon. So we asked him to write and give us the details. He wrote and gave us the details. They were given the land in the 70s, it was properly acquired. Compensation was paid; we have the records and names of those who collected compensation.

When Kaduna Polytechnic was taken over by the federal government, it became a federal property. No state governor can touch federal land. Even if I want to give land in Kaduna Polytechnic, the law does not allow me.
So these people that encroached have picked a fight with the federal government of Nigeria. When Kaduna Polytechnic approached us, we said ok, we will go and mark the buildings that encroached. The first time we tried, the people became violent and chased away our staff. We went back with the Nigerian Army and marked the houses.

This issue had come up during the tenure of late Governor Patrick Yakowa. Kaduna Polytechnic had complained to him and he went to see the extent of encroachment. He drew a line and asked them to stop it there. He drew a line and a fence was built and he appealed to Kaduna Polytechnic to leave with the encroachment since the remaining land was still significant. An interim agreement was made. The polytechnic did not quite accept. There was nothing in writing, but you cannot look at the governor in the face and say you don’t agree. But they broke the fence and continued building. Tell me, should that be allowed to stand. When we marked that, the community made a strategic mistake. The Kaduna State government has no interest in this thing other than enforcing the law, because within our territory, we have a duty to enforce the law. But we are not benefiting. It is a federal land; we are just enforcing the law and ensuring that people in Kaduna State comply with the law.

They decided as usual to Christianise it, they said El-Rufai is attacking Christians. I said they are guilty, no discussion. If they had come to meet me and say, sorry we made a mistake, let’s go back to that land, we can discuss it. But the moment you say what is being done to you, you built without development permit and you’re saying because you’re a Christian. I will demolish it! Christianity does not condone illegality, neither does Islam. You can’t hide behind a finger and say it is because you’re a Christian. The moment you put that argument with me, you failed. So, I said go and mark it. We will recover the polytechnic land for them.

Millennium City is slightly different. Compensation was paid to some of the customary title holders. In this state, as long as I am the governor, nobody will engage in illegal development and get away with it. Illegal development means building without title and building plan approval. However big you are, if you do it, we will take down the building.

On the rumour about a faceoff between him and the deputy governor, Arc. Barnabas Bala Bantex.
I have known Arc. Barnabas Bala Bantex since 1976 at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and we never even argued once. We have never had an argument because to a large extent, we think alike and we act alike. I think the problem that we are facing is that some people feel that we are getting along too well in a state where deputy governors are supposed to be spare tyres. They don’t chair executive council meetings; they don’t become acting governor when the governor is not around. Anytime I am traveling, I write a letter to the House of Assembly to say my deputy is the acting governor and he signs everything. Every letter that comes goes to him. When I am not around he chairs executive council meetings. Our cabinet secretariat told us that no deputy governor in Kaduna State had ever chaired an executive council meeting.

We operate as partners and some people don’t like it. Today with the Internet, you can manufacture any story and it can get traction. People like these kind of things. I have between my Twitter and Facebook handle over 1.5 million followers. If I want to create and mull rumour, I am in the best position to create any rumour.

Remember, some months ago, the same PDP online platform said that I insulted the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo and he walked out of a meeting. It is completely false. I have never had a meeting with the president and the vice president in the same room. I always meet the president one on one and the vice president one on one.

These kinds of stories are meant to cause division and problems. I read the story talking about us having an argument over the retrenchment of workers. We have never discussed retrenchment of workers in Kaduna. People are just being mischievous, but we leave everything to God.

I have never slapped anybody in my life. I am not a physical person. I have not slapped anybody, may be one of my sons who misbehaved. I don’t slap people, I fight with words. I am small, if I tried to fight with my hand, I will suffer, but with words.